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A love affair with fireworks
Islander Gabriel Felix doesn’t like loud noises or explosions, and to meet him it’s no surprise. The calm and deeply religious engineer preaches kindness, promotes safety and has even earned a reputation around town for looking like Jesus.
But once a year, Felix, 30 and a self-professed geek, leaves his day job for nearly a month and delves into his true passion: fireworks. This Fourth of July, Felix marks his fourth year sharing that passion through his own fireworks stand, Vashon Fireworks Co.
“It’s not so much the explosion. I love the science of it,” Felix said one day last week as he prepared to open his stand by Sound Food. “I specialize in products that have unusual special effects or unbelievable colors. That’s what gets me excited. It’s like an art form for me.”
Felix, a friendly and easygoing man with a long ponytail and a full beard, says that while he loves pyrotechnics, he’s not blind to the fact that fireworks cause injuries, scare animals and bother neighbors. But unlike most fireworks dealers, Felix uses his position to try to make a difference.
Each year Felix — who has yet to make money on his business — donates to Vashon Island Pet Protectors to help the nonprofit cover the cost of finding and caring for animals frightened by explosions. And last year he began to offer free fireworks safety classes in conjunction with Vashon Island Fire & Rescue.
What’s more, Felix refuses to sell products he calls legal but unsafe, and he offers a special package of hard-to-find silent fireworks. Last year the stand sold about 100 of them.
“Part of being a responsible citizen is if you’re causing that problem, you need to be a part of the solution,” he said. “It is a for-profit corporation, but when I wake up in the morning it’s not about how much money I can make by selling fireworks. It’s about doing something for the community.”
Felix grew up in San Diego, where he says fireworks were mostly illegal, but he spent summers visiting his grandparents at their beachfront Maury Island home. A young boy who loved science, he saved up all year to stock up on firecrackers in Washington and soon began putting on private fireworks shows for Maury Island neighbors on the Fourth.
“That was the thrill of my life,” he said.
During those summers, Felix says he came to love Vashon, and as soon as he graduated from high school, he packed his bags and moved to the Island. His grandparents have since left Vashon, but he still lives here, keeping a herd of goats at their former waterfront home and commuting to work off-Island each day.
“Ever since I was very small I knew this was the place I wanted to be,” he said. “I feel like the Island is full of people who are very loving and love me, and it’s a special thing.”
Felix earned a degree in electrical engineering at Seattle Pacific University, and after a brief stint working with supercomputers, he turned to the medical field and now designs heart monitors.
“It’s something that’s really meaningful,” he said.
But to Felix, so are fireworks. So every summer, he takes three weeks off to set up, operate and take down his stand. He invested his own money in the stand, he said, and with the rising cost of fireworks, transporting the explosives on the ferry and purchasing the proper permits and liability insurance, he’s yet to recoup his investment.
“If people knew what it takes for me to get fireworks over here, they’d be impressed,” he said. “It’s hard, and it’s very, very expensive, but it’s what I love.”
Felix, whose car with a firecracker on top is well known on Vashon roads, also employs a dozen Islanders and pays them well over minimum wage during the stand’s short season.
“I can’t say enough about what a good person he is,” said Bridget Shore, who has worked at the stand for a few years.
Shore says she’s seen Felix clearly incorporate his faith, Orthodox Christianity, into his business, from asking employees not to curse to refusing to sell products sporting what he considers inappropriate images.
“I’ve never met anybody like him. His ethical bar is so high,” she said.
Felix, who was raised in a Christian home, came to the Orthodox faith while living Vashon. As a college student, he decided to do a report on Father Tryphon of the All Merciful Saviour Orthodox Monastery. Tryphon ended up taking the young student under his wing, and for a time Felix considered becoming a monk.
“I did a research paper on him and got a lot more than I bargained for,” he said with a laugh.
Felix, who now attends an Orthodox church in Bothell and occasionally participates in services with Father Tryphon on Vashon, says that while his faith undoubtedly plays a role in his business, his No. 1 rule at the stand is simple: Be good.
He grinned as he recalled recently opening a package of fireworks labeled Sword From Hell. He said he simply asked an employee to cover “From Hell” with a piece of tape.
“Do you really want to give your 6-year-old a Sword From Hell?” he said. “It’s a happy holiday. Come on!”
George Brown, assistant chief at VIFR, said he was pleasantly surprised last summer when Felix asked the department to help him put on a fireworks safety class. The classes drew
a small group of children, and Felix says he hopes to reach even more this year.
“I’ve enjoyed working with him,” Brown said, “and the main reason is he has public safety in mind over his own dollar.”
Felix, who pays close attention to statistics on fireworks injuries, said last year in Washington seven people lost body parts due to fireworks injuries. All instances, he noted, were caused by illegal fireworks.
So far no one on Vashon has complained to him about his stand, which doesn’t offer some popular fireworks that can be hazardous when used wrongly. Last year one man did become furious when he realized the sparklers he purchased at the stand couldn’t be used to make a sparkler bomb, considered one of the most dangerous illegal fireworks.
Felix says he warns everyone about his ultra-safe sparklers, but the man came back to the stand, yelling and waving his illegal sparkler bomb that wouldn’t explode.
“I know where to get cheap fireworks that are really loud, and they’re dangerous,” Felix said. “They’re really profitable. But in the end I could hurt someone I love or a neighbor or anyone. I have to live here in the end in this community.”